Finding community in the sprawling suburbia of Plantation, Fla.

    Photo by NNECAPA on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

    The residents of Plantation, Fla. are determined to prove that the calm suburb is a part of the South Florida retirement vacation your Jewish grandparents dream about. Acres of suburban neighborhoods are lined with unnatural palm trees and ever-growing strip malls (complete with brand-new Chabads and synagogues) where elderly couples hold up traffic as they hobble into Toojay’s Gourmet Deli to catch the early-bird special. Looking around, I would often think about how much better Chicago was going to be as I revved my car engine and listened to my friends assign point values to the crawling targets.

    Apart from the infamous Florida retirees, growing up in Plantation was, in short, safe. Like most average towns, Plantation is just good enough to allow a generation of adults to bear a generation of children, many of whom will return to bear a generation of grandchildren. In retrospect, the simplicity was absent-mindedly beautiful. A person could never feel trapped by Plantation, as it is surrounded by the suburban limbs of Broward County on all sides — Sunrise, Davie, Cooper City, Coral Springs — and gave way to Fort Lauderdale to the north and Miami to the south. The beach was fifteen minutes away, and from there you could dream about sailing elsewhere, if only until it started to rain or your shoulders showed early signs of melanoma.

    There was routine and expectation. I could dodge the police patrols and spend all night in one of the local parks; 24 Hour Fitness had a side door to sneak through since I wasn’t a gym member; and at least twenty of my friends were always at Sawgrass Mall, probably seeing the same movie as I was. The local sushi restaurant knew me by name, strangers’ backyards became makeshift film sets overnight, and Flamingo Road was the perfect place to hit 100 M.P.H.

    On the surface, the town was an extension of 1980s Fort Lauderdale, a rapidly expanding network of neighborhoods, even after the housing crisis crippled buyers’ wallets, and a beacon of smarmy dads trying to sell you their legal services. Deep down within itself, however, Plantation was an easy place to grow up. It bubbled with — or more appropriately, complacently leaked — safe, comfortable, average American life.

    My private high school ran itself like a business, routinely raising tuition behind a façade of creating a better learning environment. My headmaster would stand in front of the students and, at any event, succeed in sounding foolishly phony. (I became so keenly in tune to his mannerisms that, as I received my diploma at graduation, I succeeded in mimicking every one of his gestures in front of the audience – from his stooped handshake to his big, toothy smile. My high school didn’t like me too much.)

    My sister, on the other hand, went to the local public school, a school that was truly a world apart from the private sector of affluent whites that attended my high school. Hers, like many in the Florida public school system, was overcrowded and understaffed. She often laughs about her first day of high school — my father was encouraging her to enjoy her first day when a young man was slammed onto the hood of the adjacent police car and was subsequently arrested. The cop pulled a small bag of cannabis out the boy’s pocket and dangled it in the sunlight for all of the other possible drug violators to see. She had a very successful high school career and now attends Smith College.

    The income disparity within the South Florida town was most apparent when one ventured out of the colorful commercial centers and onto the fringes of Fort Lauderdale or Davie, where trailer parks waved Confederate flags and small, cramped homes housed many of the less fortunate in the area. Davie’s infamous ties to the Ku Klux Klan are still reminiscent in the old-south style building that line Davie Road, reminding you more of a dilapidated wild west amusement park than a wholesome neighborhood. When I arrived at Northwestern, I worried that the name of my hometown would raise some eyebrows — just to note, it was never an actual plantation.

    But underneath all of this, a warm center exists. And that warm center is where the families of Plantation crowd around and grow, leaning on one another for help and doing what they can to benefit their community. It’s where the unique interests of an eclectic group of trendy teenagers, hardworking families, and elderly Jews come together to create a comfortable, safe environment where children like myself remain aloof to the harsh realities of growing up. Lamborghinis often speed by endless palm trees propped up by wooden planks, but you learn to ignore all of that. Living in Plantation has become synonymous with the routine trips from home to school to your local community center to the beach, when you stare off into the ocean thinking about how cold you could be only a thousand miles from home.


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